Monday, August 29, 2011

Ready Player One - A Review

I just finished reading Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. RPO is a book that has exactly two things going for it. A heaping tablespoon of 80s nostalgia and promise. Regarding the former, I can only barely remember the 80s (for which I daily thank an assortment of deities,) so it does not apply. Regarding the latter, I am greatly anticipating Cline's second book. But his first one is as standard fare as it gets. Minor spoilers ahead!

The setting is cyberpunk. Classic cyberpunk. The world sucks, evil corporations rule everything, and the populace frolics in a fantastic virtual world. Enter OASIS, every MMO you ever want to play. It is so immersive and pervasive that it has become synonymous with "internet." Non-gamers can stick to the delights it offers in non-PVP zones, while gamers can go to any of the thousands of gamer-oriented worlds, themed however you like. Fantasy worlds. Cyberpunk worlds. Western worlds. You name it, OASIS has it.

Enter James Halliday, the reclusive, eccentric multibillionaire creator of OASIS who dies in the second paragraph. After his death, his video will is released. Turns out he hid an easter egg worth his entire fortune somewhere in OASIS. Thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of egg hunters (gunters) spend years trying to find Halliday's egg. Enter Wade Watts, the book's disadvantaged teenage protagonist, and his OASIS friends.

Halliday's (and the author's) great love was 80s geekery. Dungeons and Dragons, video games, mecha anime, cult classic movies, et cetera. Various allusions to everything from Atari 2600 games to Rush in his video point the way to the egg. In this, Cline's knowledge and love of 80s geekery shines through, from bits of Pac-Man trivia to D&D adventure modules. It shines brightly and focuses into an amplified beam of coherent light, piercing readers' eyeballs and making them cry, "Ow! My suspension of disbelief!" It often feels like the book is an outlet for Cline's hobbies. A way to get the entire world to admire his knowledge of the decade's best subculture. The book is littered with bits of trivia that just don't belong, scenes that break the sweet, sweet illusion of fiction.

Neither the plot nor the characters do much to elevate the book beyond "compendium of trivia." The characters are archetypal, and the plot is extraordinarily predictable. In fact, I would call it nothing more than the ultimate adolescent male geek fantasy. Our teenage male protagonist saves the (virtual) world, becomes filthy rich, and gets the cute/shy/geeky girl. And all by playing video games, listening to Rush, and watching Monty Python films. Every geek dude having spent sufficient lonely Friday nights playing video games alone in his room has already envisioned the entire plot of the book. Or at least I have. Often. Before crying myself to sleep.

All in all, I give the book three out of five Awesome Book Merit Points. It's not a bad book exactly, but it contains no surprises, and its greatest strength (80s trivia) frequently turns into one of its weaknesses. It's certainly worth a read if you're jonesing for some 80s nostalgia. Or, like me, you're just a video game history buff. Otherwise, I would skip it and wait for his next book.

Incidentally, I think Cline is a very promising novelist. With a little restraint and direction, his obvious enthusiasm for awesome stuff could be channeled into something truly great.

1 comment:

Nathan said...

Excellent review. "Ow, my suspension of disbelief!" is my new "What are the odds?!"